Tuvalu is slowly disappearing. What happens when its land is gone? – National Geographic

Tuvalu, a Pacific island nation on the frontline of the climate crisis, is fighting to retain its land—and its identity.
Tuvalu — When Taukiei Kitara was born, his parents cut his umbilical cord into two pieces, as is tradition in his native country of Tuvalu. They planted one piece at the base of a coconut tree about 30 feet from the shore and offered the other to the sea. Throughout his childhood, Kitara returned to the tree to check on its health and brush away any fallen fronds. Even as a kid, though, Kitara recognized that the shoreline was inching closer to his umbilical cord. The sea is getting hungrier and hungrier, he thought. 
Tuvalu is an island nation of less than 12,000 inhabitants, located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The country’s average elevation is less than 10 feet above sea level, which makes it particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. Scientists estimate that by 2050, 50 percent of Funafuti, the capital where more than half of the country lives, will become flooded by tidal waters. 
Many see Tuvalu as an example of what other coastal communities will face in the years to come. Researchers predict that, by 2050, more than 216 million people may be forced to migrate due to climate change. Tuvalu’s precarious position has forced it to reckon with an existential question: What happens to a country if it no longer has land? 
The word for land in Tuvaluan, fenua, refers to both physical land and a sense of belonging rooted in one’s identity. In Tuvalu, land is owned communally, and passed down through family lines. Tuvaluans bury their ancestors in mausoleums beside their front doors. The land holds their relatives, history, and tradition, which makes the question of whether to leave intractable. 
“We cannot hold the perspective that migration is [a given],” Maina Talia, Tuvalu’s Minister of Climate Change told me. “But what if we wake up in the morning and half the population has been wiped out by the ocean—who should we blame?”
In the shadow of this immense existential threat lies a personal question for Tuvaluans: Should I stay or should I go? Some Tuvaluans are considering leaving to pursue more security, but the majority of those I spoke to plan to stay. 

“It’s true climate change is affecting us, but we want to stay,” Fenuatapo Mesako, a program officer at The Tuvalu Family Health Association, told me. “We don’t want to be Tuvaluans in another country. We want to be Tuvaluans in Tuvalu.”
Arriving by plane, the atoll of Funafuti appears like a green crescent moon in a vast aqua sky. 
In total, the nine islands that make up Tuvalu have a land mass of about 10 square miles. Besides being on the frontline of the climate crisis, Tuvalu is known for two things: it is one of the least visited countries in the world, and it owns the .tv domain suffix, which is the country’s second greatest source of revenue after selling the rights to its fishing territories.
A few minutes before a plane lands at Funafuti International Airport, a siren goes off in town to encourage people to clear the runway. With land as a premium and only four flights in a week, the airstrip doubles as a multi-lane highway, volleyball court, and picnic destination depending on the time of day. 
Climate change is embedded in almost every aspect of daily life. Sea water has infiltrated the island’s soil and made it difficult to grow staples of the Tuvaluan diet like taro, breadfruit, and coconut. King tides, which have gotten progressively more intense in recent years, sweep from the ocean across the island once a month, flooding the airstrip and people’s homes. 
“When I was younger, life was different,” 25-year-old Menimei Melton told me. “I learned about climate change when I was an infant, but I didn’t really see how it was affecting us until I was older.”
Although climate change helped raise the country’s profile on the international stage, locals want to ensure that Tuvalu is not defined solely by its relationship to a crisis they did little to produce. According to Climate Watch, Tuvalu is one of the 25 countries with the smallest per-capita carbon footprint on the planet.
“For me, I feel the news unnecessarily frightens people,” Afelle Falema Pita, the former Tuvaluan ambassador to the United Nations, who left a life in New York to open a no-frills eco-resort with his wife, told me. “We can have workshop after workshop, but if we spend 365 days a year talking about climate change, we are not tending to our lives here.”
It’s a tricky balance to strike. On one hand, climate change is not some far-off phenomenon in Tuvalu; it demands attention today. And yet, there is more to Tuvalu than its rising tides. 
As you walk through Funafuti’s streets, the melodies of church hymns commingle with the voices of families singing karaoke. You might stumble across 40 elders playing bingo under the thatched roof of the community meeting hall, or a group of 20-somethings practicing fatele, the traditional Tuvaluan dance where dancers move to an increasingly fast beat until they are overcome by infectious laughter. 
In Tuvalu, values are not just spoken about, they are lived. Take falepili, the idea of “good neighborliness.” Falepili manifests in many ways—from the country’s lack of crime and homelessness to its frequent community-wide potlucks to its foreign policy. The culture that makes Tuvalu Tuvalu cannot easily be transported to a different continent.
Last November, Tuvalu and Australia signed a bilateral climate and migration treaty—The Falepili Treaty—which offers Tuvalu $11 million for coastal restoration projects and visas for 280 Tuvaluans to become permanent Australia residents each year. Funafuti residents have mixed opinions about the agreement. Some feel it’s a welcome pathway for those who might want to leave. Others are concerned it encroaches on Tuvalu’s sovereignty. 
“The best thing Australia could do to support countries like Tuvalu is to stop its fossil fuel industries,” says Richard Gorkrun, the executive director of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network.   
The government is attempting to ensure that Tuvalu can retain its sovereignty and rights to its fishing territories even if climate change were to make the islands uninhabitable. Last September, Tuvalu’s parliament unanimously passed an amendment to enshrine its statehood in perpetuity, which it is now asking other nations to formally recognize. 
The country is also undergoing two large-scale infrastructure projects. The first is a land reclamation initiative, primarily funded by the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, which involves transporting sand from the middle of the ocean to build two square miles of new protected land on Funafuti. The second is the Future Now Project, a “digital migration” of government services and historical artifacts to the metaverse, which will allow Tuvalu to retain its cultural identity even if its land ceases to exist.
To the best of its ability, Tuvalu is trying to let its community-oriented values drive how it navigates the uncertainty of the future. When deadly bushfires swept through Australia in 2020, for example, the Tuvaluan government donated $300,000 to support relief efforts, even though it was, at the time, a larger gift as a proportion of GDP than what Australia had ever given to Tuvalu. Some government officials objected. $300,000 is just a drop in the ocean for a country as big as Australia, they thought. What difference would it make?
But the donation amount was besides the point. “There can’t be a disconnect between how we act in government and how we live at a community level,” said Simon Kofe, who at the time was Tuvalu’s foreign minister. “If so, we’re just behaving like every other nation, driven solely by our national interest.”
So while the international community may look at Tuvalu with pity given its susceptibility to rising sea levels, perhaps it’s the Tuvaluans who should pity developed Western countries, who, in the pursuit of endless material wealth and growth, have largely lost sight of the collective action it will take to address the climate crisis. 
“Each nation thinking about their own self-interest is what got us into this mess,” Kofe told me. “We need to stop behaving as if we’re all islands.”
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